When Jim McCue founded the Boston Comedy Festival (BCF) 15 years ago, he never would have predicted it would grow to be one of the largest comedy festivals in the country.
The event seemed destined to fail at the beginning. At a time when the Boston comedy scene was nearly nonexistent, the festival faced a number of challenges. The venues that hosted the early festivals, including the Comedy Connection in Faneuil Hall and Dick’s Beantown Comedy Vault, both no longer exist. McCue attempted a number of unsuccessful theme shows and unwillingly changed the name of the event multiple times to appeal to a wider audience.
“There used to never be a way to get members of the comedy industry here to see the performers,” said Helen McCue, the festival’s director and Jim McCue’s sister. “The initial goal was to get people to come here and see all of the types of acts in Boston. Over time, we have grown to be an event where many major acts are born here and spread all across the country.”
Now in its 15th year, the BCF has hosted over 1,800 comedians and 600. Given the successes of many Boston-area comedians, including Jay Leno, Dane Cook, Bill Burr, and Louis C.K., the BCF has garnered nationwide attention.
The backbone of the festival has always been its standup competition, one of the largest in the country. Festival staff receive over 10,000 submissions from aspiring standup acts, and a panel of three judges condenses the list to about 100 contestants. This year, the BCF is featuring 96 comedians over nine days, with $10,000 at stake for the lone survivor.
“This is a great opportunity for someone to be seen,” Helen McCue said. “It opens up a lot of doors to other festivals, TV deals, management, and agents.”
The reputation of the BCF has only increased when its past winners gain recognition. Alingon Mitra won the festival last year, and he was featured on the last season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. Tom Cotter, a finalist on America’s Got Talent, is also a past winner.
“You want to hit the ball out of the ballpark, and you’d [love] to have somebody from Conan, any major late-night TV show, or Jimmy Fallon’s producers to see you,” local comic E.J. Murphy told The Boston Globe prior to performing in the competition. “That would be a dream come true.”
The competition is only one part of the festival. Headlining acts this year include Boston-born comedy legends Lenny Clarke and Steve Sweeney, both veterans of the festival. Todd Barry, Ted Alexandro, Monroe Martin, Ron Funches, and Lauren Verge, who hosts the “Women’s Show,” will also perform along with a group of local headliners at various locations across Boston.
This week, the BCF is taking place at six venues throughout the city of Boston. The standup event started last Friday and will conclude Saturday, Nov. 15. At a midpoint in this year’s event, McCue hopes that last weekend’s surge of popularity will continue throughout the second week of the festival.
“There are many more acts to come this week and this upcoming weekend, and it’s going to be very hard to choose the winner of our competition,” McCue said. “Our headliners have been very popular, and I know many people are looking forward to seeing the famous Emo Philips this Friday. I think people will learn a lot from him.”
Each year, the festival undergoes some changes to find out what works and what doesn’t—always trying to adjust to audience’s preferences. This year, three comedians will record their podcasts in front of a live audience. The podcasts include “TV Guidance Counselor” with Ken Reid, Bonnie McFarlane’s “My Wife Hates Me,” and “You’re the Expert” with Chris Duffy.
Based on the success of the event this year, McCue expects that the Boston-based festival will continue to grow and gain attention from across the country.
“My expectation for us is that we will get even bigger,” McCue said. “Our influence is spreading all over, but all I can ask for is that we will keep our roots and continue to be a close community event for Boston.”
Featured Image – AP Photo / Brad Barket, Invision